The Problem with Church Membership Covenants – bad doctrine hurts God’s people

The Old Testament is full of covenants God made with his people: Edenic, Noahic, Abrahamic, Mosaic, Davidic. If those aren’t familiar to you, don’t worry. The point is that God makes covenants – a type of binding promise – with his people.

Today we live under the new and lasting covenant Jesus established. It had been promised in prophecy centuries before.

“The days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and with the people of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them,” declares the Lord. (Jeremiah 31:31-32.)

Under this New Covenant, God enables you to know him intimately.

“This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel after that time,” declares the Lord. “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will they teach their neighbor, or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” declares the Lord. “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.” (Jeremiah 31:33-34.)

This is the promise Jesus brought to reality through his death and resurrection. I imagine his friends couldn’t help but recognize Jeremiah’s prophecy when, the night before his death, Jesus said to them at the Passover dinner:

“This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you. (Luke 22:20.)

This is the covenant God has with his people.

The Bible does not Tell Christians to Covenant with the Church

Your covenant relationship is with God, not the body of Christ. Some local churches teach otherwise and even require their members to sign covenants full of obligations governing the conduct of the member. Their ecclesiology (that is, their doctrine of the church) is wrong* and it can turn the church into an idol that takes God’s place in a Christian’s life.

The first time I heard of local churches having their members sign these unbiblical covenants was thirty years ago. One of my law school classmates told me she was leaving a church she’d been attending for years. The church elders had been telling her who to room with (several other young women from the church in the home of an older woman in the congregation) and whether she could join the military after graduation (they were not inclined to approve it). She couldn’t take the control any longer and left.

She said they considered her to have broken the covenant she’d signed with them and the leaders decided the only way to preserve the integrity of the covenant was to require church members to shun her. And the membership did, because the leadership told them to.

She lost a lot of friends.

That idea of a signed covenant with your church was new to me. I knew of church membership, of course, and consider it to be within decent ecclesiology for God’s people. But a signed membership covenant?**

The problem with a covenant between an individual person and the local congregation is that it is not only found nowhere in the Bible but it is contrary to Scripture.

After all, you are not in covenant with the body of Christ as an organization. You are part of the body of Christ organically, that is, the Body of Christ is a single organism. Here are a few ways the Bible describes Christ’s body:

  • You are a branch along with other branches who depend on the One Vine, Jesus. (John 15.)
  • You are a stone lined up with other stones depending on the Cornerstone, Jesus. (1 Peter 2.)
  • You are a sheep in a flock of sheep under One Shepherd, Jesus. (John 10.)

Every single one of those ways of looking at our place in the body of Christ – the church – is dependent on our relationship with Jesus, not with one another. And it is because of our relationship with Jesus that we are in relationship with one another.

Your relationship with Jesus is under the new covenant that Jesus described to his disciples. It is the new relationship God promised he would create with his people. And this new covenant with God is the only one that counts.

That leads to two conclusions about covenants:

  1. Don’t sign a covenant relationship with your local church. There’s no such relationship supported by the Bible.
  2. Do join with others who are also in the New Covenant relationship with God:

And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another.” (Hebrews 10:24-25.)

God’s covenant with you leads to fellowship with others who are also in covenant with him. These are the relationships firmly supported by the Bible. And it’s all based on God’s covenant with you, not some unbiblical covenant with other Christians.

After all, God’s the one who keeps covenants and promises perfectly, so let’s leave the convenanting up to him.

***

*For more on ecclesiology gone wrong regarding church membership rules, see The Church That Tells You Where You Are Allowed To Go To Church.

**The existence of covenant membership in a local church has been resurfacing lately. For example, a blogger last month wrote of a large church where she is a “covenant member”. This church is led by a mega-pastor who writes books and headlines conferences. Describing herself as a “covenant member” of the church was superfluous to her post, which points out another danger of elevating membership to covenant membership: it creates the impression of an inner ring that those who have not signed the covenant don’t belong to. That is not the way the body of Christ is to behave.

***

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72 Responses to The Problem with Church Membership Covenants – bad doctrine hurts God’s people

  1. “No longer will they teach their neighbor, or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” declares the Lord.”

    I choose this sort of liberty over the control offered by some ‘churches’ any day!

    • Tim says:

      I’ve thought the same. LL. Why people want to live in any way other than in the freedom and liberty Jesus brings is beyond me.

      • I think many have been sold a ‘different gospel’ and have bought the lie that submitting to their leaders is the highest calling for a christian. They just don’t know the truth about the freedom Jesus offers. (For me, it took experiencing abuse and betrayal for me to wake up and start asking questions – but thank God I did!)

  2. janehinrichs says:

    These signed covenants with churches are CREEPY! Yuck.

    • Tim says:

      Creepy is just the word for it, Jane. Yet there are churches with 10,000+ people attending them as well as small congregations of 100 or so who employ them and control their members’ lives in ways Paul would have spoken against from what I can tell.

  3. Laura Droege says:

    What about church membership vows? Our denomination requires church members to take 4-5 vows when they join a particular church. (We haven’t joined the church, so we can’t vote on candidates for leadership positions.) Would you view those as similar to the signed covenants these other churches are requiring?

    • Tim says:

      I’m not sure what the vows you’ve seen consist of or how they’re employed. I think it’s one thing to agree with a church’s doctrinal statement and promise to abide by its by-laws, to promise to serve one another with the gifts God has given everyone. To call it a covenant and wield it so that leadership gets to run people’s lives is the problem I’ve tried to address here though.

      • Laura Droege says:

        Most of the vows in our denomination are about agreeing with the doctrine, agreeing to promote the peace and well-being of the church, things like that. The only one that trips me up is about submitting to the leaders of the church and their discipline. That was the one that was abused (for a while) at our old church. When we’d joined that church, I’d only seen church discipline used in two cases, both involving sexual offenses (adultery and sexual abuse of a minor child), so I thought that as long as I didn’t cheat on my husband or kill somebody, I’d probably be okay. For many years, everything was fine. Unfortunately, after several leadership changes, people were being “disciplined” for “violating their membership vows” for things that amounted to openly disagreeing with the (overly touchy-sensitive, IMO) leaders. That’s when the split happened. So my husband and I are reluctant to join another church requiring this type of submission to discipline because, while the elders at our current church seem like fine, level-headed men, there’s no guarantees. And I really want women as elders, too. I’d probably feel better about that last vow if there were equal numbers of men and women on the session. (That was a problem at the last church, IMO: ignoring female wisdom.)

        Good post, Tim. I’m glad that you’ve addressed this, along with so many other issues, on your blog. I hope that even if people disagree with your stance that they’ll still ponder your thoughts and the Scriptural principles behind them.

        • Tim says:

          Laura, those types of promises on taking membership are normal and helpful, I think. We join together to build each other up. But when it comes to leadership and discipline the leaders need to remember that members are their own priests before God and if the members deiced to leave then leadership should let them go. The leadership is not called to pass judgment on the members and former members.

          I know what you mean about not seeing women in leadership, too. I don’t think I’ll ever join another church that doesn’t have women and men together on the board of elders.

          ________________________________

  4. Abby says:

    Like you, I see merits in church membership, but not in this type of covenant that is held over people’s heads in order to exert control. What I find most interesting about many of the situations we’ve heard about regarding such covenants is that the church’s leadership is attempting to exert control after it’s slipped away from them. Much like (if you’ll forgive the terrible metaphor) trying to catch a hyperactive dog after she’s gotten out of the house. Maybe eventually you can sweet talk the dog back inside if she loves you, but unlike the pet, a person has figured out that you’re not safe anymore, and will want nothing to do with you ever again. The idea that a leader or group of leaders has decided that this coercive, controlling mentality would actually work on thinking human beings astounds me, and makes me think that they do not actually want thinking human beings in their pews, but would rather have yes-men and yes-women sitting there, nodding along thoughtlessly to sermons.

    I don’t know if we’ll ever get church membership agreements exactly correct, but I hope people learn from this situation and other similar ones that the kind of “covenant membership” agreements that churches like this try to enforce, don’t make for more committed Christians, they only breed abuse and manipulation.

    • Tim says:

      Good point, Abby. These types of covenants are rule-based, and rules don’t help people mature, Colossians 2 says that such rules are worthless and will eventually fade away.

      ________________________________

  5. govpappy says:

    Friend of mine was defending these things partly on the basis of something CS Lewis said, and I’m paraphrasing, “Many don’t leave the church because they were persuaded to, they just drift away.” He sees covenants as a viable option to prevent such behavior.

    The problem is that it doesn’t prevent such behavior. It just masks it. Rather, it’s more liable to create a culture of trapped phonies in the church – People lying to themselves and others. I believe it creates the kind of fake “unity” that will further drive people away who have doubts or differences of opinion with church leadership, so they’re only left with weak yes-men. I saw this same dynamic happen at my former IFB church, when a scandal broke. They have no covenant, but the power dynamic was similar. The stronger families, the thinkers, saw something was up. Some tried to effect change. When it was apparent they had no say, they left. All that’s left now are loyal yes-men. And I mean that literally, because the women have no say.

    At its best, church covenants attempt to bind us into doing what we’re supposed to do organically as a body. Normally, it seems to end up with the members bound to the pastor’s vision. At its worst, it’s a tool of control, manipulation, and spiritual and physical imprisonment.

    • Tim says:

      Good description of how these things go wrong, Pappy. We are one in the Spirit because of Jesus, not because of some agreement we’ve arrived at with each other.

      ________________________________

  6. Jeannie says:

    This whole membership covenant thing is something I had never given much thought to before you posted on it a few weeks back. I agree with GovPappy that it seems (however well-intended) to be an attempt to “bind us into doing what we’re supposed to do organically as a body.” Great post and great comments as always.

    • Tim says:

      The recent attention given to it would have come as a complete surprise to me if it weren’t something I’ve seen over and over again in my town over the past 30 years from that one church.

  7. Church leadership is such a hard subject to deal with. I fully agree that these covenant agreements are wrongheaded. They really seem to be about control more than anything else, and seem ripe for abuse. However, it just leaves me with the question of what should church leadership look like? It seems like so often we get it wrong more than we get it right.

    • Tim says:

      It is hard, but I think in part that’s because people want to know how to do it right but there is no single right way to do it. I’ve been on a board of elders and I’ve served on a pulpit committee too. And on the various terms on the elder board I served we did it differently depending on the make up of the board and the needs of the body. Never did we try to control anyone, though. We just wanted to teach the gospel, help people who needed help, and keep the lights on.

      • govpappy says:

        Now this is interesting. The one church dynamic I’ve liked was a small country SBC church that did just that – helped folks in the community, had solid teaching and preaching, and kept the lights on.

        You think maybe discontent is a root problem? Don’t get me wrong, reaching more people for Christ is certainly not a bad thing. I just think a huge danger in expansion is letting the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.
        I don’t know what the solution is – I’ve never known a pastor turn someone away from a fellowship because he doesn’t want to get too big, nor would I expect him too. But I do think a balance can and should be struck between growing a healthy community of believers in your church and also working with other churches to find good fits for the people that come through your doors.
        I just see big churches as a major high-wire act, with little actual benefit to their size, yet tons of risk.

        • Tim says:

          High wire act is right. I’d rather see a bunch of smallish fellowships serving a community in harmony than one huge church operating solo while the smaller congregations are ignored.

        • Jeannie says:

          Just want to add that it is really refreshing to hear someone say “a huge danger in expansion is letting the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.” I think we more commonly hear the exact opposite: “We mustn’t let the needs of a few people take over the whole church.” And of course a narrow, selfish agenda (especially that of a clique that wants power) shouldn’t be the guiding principle either. But I think of 1 Cor 12 where Paul says “those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.” The church is a body that needs, and should care for, every part — not some kind of mutant monster (“What our church needs is more eyes ’cause eyes are best!”).

        • Tim says:

          Jesus took time for the one when the many were clamoring for his attention. I think of the woman who wanted to touch his robe. Jesus called her daughter and assured her of his love, while everyone stood by and waited.

        • The thing is, at least in my experience, when I was seeking to become a pastor (not SBC, but another denomination) if you said you worked best in smaller churches, the response was not too favorable. You get what you look for, and at least the denomination I was involved with seemed to be looking for people comfortable with leading churches that were over 200 people. I wonder how many other denominations take the same kind of approach? It pretty much sends the message that small churches aren’t worth the time.

      • You’re right there is no right way, which makes it both easier and harder. I’ve been on one elder board so far in my life and it was certainly a learning experience. Even if you have good intentions and aren’t trying to just control people, poor communication and negative assumptions can still make things messy and leave people unhappy or hurt.

  8. Ted says:

    I once was a part of a church that had two tiers of membership: the first was “normal” membership (the “normal” is my description) and the second was called the “Core Team” (the church’s language). You had to be invited to be a part of the Core Team and could have been a member for years and not be invited. It definitely created an elitist mentality.

  9. Sarah says:

    I was on staff at a megachurch. Shortly after the church fired me (another story for another day, but not nearly as interesting as that would make it sound), the church was sued by a member who alleged that a senior pastor had unofficially counselled her and sexually abused her. I followed/follow the court case when I remember (it’s dragged on for years). The church submitted as evidence her “membership covenant” stating that she had agreed to arbitration, and that this was clearly spelled out in the membership class.

    The problem is, it’s NOT clearly spelled out in the membership class. It’s glossed over pretty quickly and shrouded in language that makes it sound like you are just signing a document saying you’ll get along with others in the church. The church also argued that the (main?) senior pastor taught the class. She had stated he hadn’t. I was in a class that same year, if not the same session (can’t remember) and I can verify the senior pastor DID NOT teach that class. He showed up about 10 minutes before the end to go over a few main points and do a meet and greet.

    This person sued the church under a pseudonym due to the nature of the case (sexual abuse). The church submitted her membership “covenant” as evidence and it’s now public record – her name, address, her children’s names and information, all of it is public record. So much for anonymity.

    All that to say, church covernants, yo. RUN.

    • Tim says:

      I have to say that any church membership that requires an agreement up front to mediate disputes with leadership is suspect doctrinally. Run, and shake the dust from your feet on the way out the door.

  10. Having been on the inside, and hearing the discussions when my former megachurch decided to create the covenant system, their reasons were:

    1) It would be a weed-out, forcing those who are uncommitted to the church long-term to either submit or find another church.

    2) It would help the staff get out ahead of any problems. This way problems would hopefully be stopped before they start. A deterrent, in other words.

    3) It would give the staff something to point to so that further questions about discipline or church matters would be moot. Essentially, they could just say “Well, you signed the covenant,” and that would be that.

    At the time, me being 24 or so, I thought nothing of it. I loved my church. Now, I see the craziness of that (although I will admit, from a certain perspective there is a genuine good spirit behind these things, but it quickly is left behind).

    Essentially, I see covenants as a lot like some of our laws enacted in the past couple of decades. It’s become too hard to trust people to their own responsibility, so the government has come in and created laws that some would say strip certain freedoms protected by the constitution. Innocent until proven guilty being the biggest one I can think of.

    When megachurches create these covenants, they’re saying, “We can’t possibly trust you, there’s no room for the benefit of the doubt; this is our only option in order to maintain our authority in the church.”

    The sad part is that I’m 34 now, having been removed from the membership of that church 5 years ago, and I’m still terrified of them. It’s doesn’t make logical sense in my brain, but my immediate response (even to posting this comment) is that somehow they’ll find out and ruin my life.

    I’d like to see a discussion sometime on authority and/or power as how it applies to church staffs and/or pastors. It just seems crazy that a head pastor of a 10000+ church should have so much power. It’s inevitable that he will be crushed under it, often slowly and blindly.

    • Tim says:

      I am glad you had the strength to post this comment, Christian. That first reason you noted for the church adopting the covenant model jumps out at me. Submit or find another church? Sorry, but I belong in any church I choose to attend as long as that church is part of the body of Christ. That’s my standing in the family of God and no church leader has the power to decide otherwise.

    • govpappy says:

      Seeing that side of things, I can’t help but think a membership covenant at a church is little more than a way to avoid actual personal, knowing, loving care for the individual members. It’s a little bit like, “refer to the company handbook chapter 5, section c” when someone has an issue, in contrast to “hey lets grab coffee and figure out what’s best for you together.”
      Take the time to really, genuinely know your folks, and covenants are meaningless. But you can’t when there’s 10k people. It’s physically impossible.

      Yeah, this size issue has been bugging the heck out of me. You can’t physically pastor that many people. These big-time “pastors” no longer really do any actual pastoring. They don’t know their folks. They can’t. I’m not really knocking them here, it’s just a limitation of the human condition, one they need to realize. They have to rely on their staff and covenants to deal with that many people, or the alternative is a free-for-all.

      I’m really trying not to knock big-church pastors too much, because I really don’t see a good way to do it. It seems impossibly tough. If anyone knows any examples of big churches doing it right, I’d love to hear about them. Really.

      • I’ve thought about this for years and have come to this conclusion: there isn’t a good way.

        It’s fundamentally flawed to begin with. Large churches exist, in my opinion, largely because the members don’t want to do the hard work. They can hide more easily, sure, but it’s also just laziness. They can give monetarily and feel good about contributing to the Kingdom for doing just that (knowing that the money goes to a certain ministry).

        Really, there should be a pull within each person when a church gets above a certain size that says “Hey, we can’t manage this anymore, we have to get smaller.” Otherwise you get the business/govt organizational structure, and thus, as you said, less intimate care.

        I also think that beyond laziness, there’s fear. Fear of intimacy, for sure, fear of doubt, as well. If you break up into a gathering of 8 couples, there’s nowhere to hide. You can’t lie to them forever if you’re doubting, or mired in some sinful addiction. You will end up spending more time with these folks rather than watching our beloved TVs. You have to risk vulnerability and that’s terrifying. So we avoid these by clumping up, thinking it’s our only means of survival.

        There are other factors, too, of course, but these are the major ones I see.

  11. Don Johnson says:

    People in Scripture enter into covenants all the time, for many reasons. Entering into a covenant is something that one does with one or both parties make a vow to the other. Just by itself, there is nothing wrong with this. Marriage, for example, is a 2-way covenant.

    A church as an organization can decide who constitutes a member and who is an attender but not a member; for example, members get to vote on church matters but attenders do not. God is not against covenants, but one should be wise about the covenants one chooses to enter. The church may decide to use the language of Scripture and call this membership agreement a covenant. I do not see anything inherently wrong with this, it depends on exactly what is contained in the agreement to know whether it is wise to accept it or not. For example, a church may want to plan its budget and wish to know what commitments, if any, its members are willing to make in terms of amounts to give each week; again I see nothing inherently wrong with this. If the agreement specifies an amount or a percentage of income, then I would agree it would not be wise to sign. It is assumed that people are adults and know what they are agreeing to, but sometimes this is not true.

    I certainly agree that the membership covenant of Village church was too controlling and very unwise to agree with, but that does not mean that any and all such agreements are unwise.

    • Pastor Bob says:

      Last paragraph says a lot. Well done.

    • Tim says:

      You draw important distinctions, Don. The use of the word “covenant” regarding these types of memberships seems to connote something more than merely agreeing with one another to pursue a common goal (e.g., pledge drives for big projects, acknowledging a church’s statement of faith).

  12. Pastor Bob says:

    Having seen all of the above, and many posts — I weigh in.
    Pro: What does your local church believe? I can think of an instantly divisive issue, Pentecostalism. What is the church’s position? Pick another issue, what is the church’s position?
    There are MANY doctrinal issues that do not affect salvation, yet are important to many. The local church may very well take a position on one of these, do you know what it is?

    Submit to leadership? Yes, but voluntarily. One willingly submits, and follows biblical guidance. As a leader in my church, my words are NOT absolute, but guided by the wisdom gained through worldly experiences and the Word of God (one may need to also temper this this with some knowledge of applicable laws(s)).

    If the church has taken biblical positions on crucial doctrinal issues, how to resolve conflicts, other matters of doctrinal (but not salvation) issues and you agree, agree then.

    The con side of this:
    i was in a church where the new Pastor slowly assumed more and more control. Ideas that initially looked good resulted in poor execution, and finger pointing – all done gently. My words were ask God, wait, ask for God’s direction again and then act. Imagine my surprise when the ministry i had built form nothing to a good size was criticized. Further I was in sin for not addressing issues raised – which I had no knowledge of. I was allowed to quietly resign and I found a new church to work in a few months later.

    Oddly enough, as members left they were called “traitors” and the church was to shun them. Many refused and faced “discipline,” and then left. I was able to guide many to new churches, with this stipulation, visit the church I was attending, but please do not stay because I am here. See what God tells you – please!

    Churches have one major flaw, the same needs that are being met in the church can affect the leaders. It is hard to build new friends, but it can be done.

    Through the challenge shared above, I became known as a man of integrity. The sinning pastor apologized a few years ago. I am in a better place, and God gets the glory.

    I do support membership agreements, one needs to know what the church assembly believes in. The individual has the right to accept or reject.

    I even served as a Pentecostal in an anti-Pentecostal church. Integrity is a wonderful thing.

    • Tim says:

      PB, your gentle leadership born of experience is a blessing to the body of Christ. I am glad God has used you to care for others in his family.

  13. Melody says:

    “Your covenant relationship is with God, not the body of Christ.”
    Whole problem with this authority movement: they want you to submit to them EVEN AGAINST CHRIST. The idea that men leading a church are infallible is ridiculous and wrong. Great post. Much needed. Am reminded again of something I read (as sent to Wade Burleson, and bears being heard):
    “When absolute control and rigid obedience pose as love within the family and the local faith-community, we produce trained cowards rather than Christian persons.” -Brennan Manning

    • Tim says:

      That’s a great quote, Melody. The leadership in the covenant member churches seem to be saying that people must follow them, even if the member is wiser than the leader on a particular subject.

    • Pastor Bob says:

      “The idea that men leading a church are infallible is ridiculous and wrong.”
      The strongest leaders recognize their fallibility. They even apologize when wrong.

  14. Rob Grayson says:

    Nice post, Tim. For freedom!

  15. Kevin Mason says:

    The word “covenant” sounds so evangelical, so warm and inviting; but it becomes a “binding legal contract” when a church wishes to exercise control or fears losing control. The original intentions may have been sincere but over time and because of man’s sinful nature, what was intended to be a soft glove to guide the sheep becomes a sharp stick used to beat them into submission.

    It has been my experience that insecure leaders and incompetent leaders hoping to hide their insecurity and incompetency will try to use force over anyone who questions the teaching or actions of the leader. If the leader does not have or maintain a godly humility, what results becomes ungodly. (Pride is also a contributing factor.)

    • Tim says:

      Even the very word “covenant” lends itself to this abuse of authority. No one wants to be told they are in violation of a covenant. For a pastor to say that members are even in covenant with the local church is an error; to then say a member who does not submit to leadership is violating some false notion of covenant compounds the error.

      • dan jr says:

        Are you picking issue with the Monastic tradition, Celtic tradition, Desert Father tradition and Anabaptism all of which took communal vows to a Rule and Rhythm of life?

        • Tim says:

          No. If you look at what I wrote above you’ll see it’s a critique of covenanting with local bodies so that leadership is given control over members. That is quite unlike the communal vows you mention.

          Ben Irwin put it well in a comment he left on Facebook after reading this post:

          Being an Episcopalian, we have a membership covenant of sorts: our baptismal covenant. But it’s not behavior management thinly veiled as a covenant. It’s “Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons?” and “Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?” and stuff like that. And importantly, it’s a covenant we make horizontally, to and with each other—rather than vertically… say, to our priest or church leaders.

          Covenants used to control people’s behavior and manipulate them into never leaving your church? Bad.

        • dan jr says:

          OK, still a bit confusing. Maybe its because I’ve never seen one of these documents.

  16. Jordan says:

    Yes, there is not to be a “special” covenant. Jesus’ covenant covers all aspects of the Christian life – INCLUDING membership to the Church. Today we “add” a “church” covenant because the meaning of Covenant has been lost (perhaps in a way similar to adding a “Marriage Amendment” because we have forgotten the original meaning of marriage so we have to cobble some words to make the first idea stick). In the Early Church every one was a committed member to the local congregation because of Jesus. Although people could honor Christ’s Covenant in a different locale, it was not a place down the road nor because they did not like the pastor, the sermons, the worship, because it was closer to home, etc. The biblical witness makes it clear that there was one Church in one locale because it was believed the body of Christ is One, and cannot be divided (Paul rebukes franchising the church along the line of personality with a thundering question, “Has Christ been divided?, 1 Cor. 1: 11-13). Of course, there was not one mega church, nor was the Church viewed as only a place where one worship. It was a shared way of life, together, 24/7. The house churches of the N.T. were in a genuine fellowship that demonstrated their unity with Christ through their unity with one with another in practical ways (people did not move from one house church to another either for simple convenience. Why? They believed Jesus made them Family). The real point underneath this controversy is the loss of the Biblical meaning of Covenant Community, together with an emergence of a “hyper individualism” which sees the Church as defined around the individual and his/her preferences rather than around Christ, who He called us to be, and what it means to be His Community. The Church is to be a witness of God’s Covenant – including Covenant love (hesed) – something which demonstrates the Gospel as God’s love reflected in the quality of love each shares for their Lord and His People. This is the Gospel that is “the way, the truth, and the life”.

    • Fall Timothy says:

      Your description of the fellowship of believers because of their covenant with God is what I see in the Scripture too, Jordan. Thanks for laying it out so completely. As for not moving from house church to house church, I don’t know if it didn’t happen or that it happened but it went unrecorded in the New Testament. It would be interesting to hear from someone who know the history of the period.

    • Velour says:

      I just read this article and saw Jordan’s post. Having been in a church for 8+ years that made everyone sign a Membership Covenant, I will NEVER do so again. (A godly doctor in his 70s was excommunicated for dissent. He’s a friend of Pastor John MacArthur’s who was outraged. Another wife was so troubled she went to another church & was the subject of church discipline for practicing Christian conscience. I disagreed with the pastors/elders about the safety of our church’s children from a felon, their friend whom they defended, whose supervising law enforcement agency said he wasn’t safe and I was excommunicated.)

      We constantly hear the spin about the need to have Membership Covenants from church leaders who disguise their real motives: authoritarian control over other members’ lives, a lack of respect for the priesthood of all believers, a lack of respect for the Holy Spirit in believers’ lives, church leaders infantilizing adults, leaders using Membership Covenants like a crow bar to force themselves in to believers’ lives, a lack of respect for believers, a lack of love, and a lack of problem solving skills.

      Mark Dever (Capitol Hill Baptist) and his 9 Marks organization are some of the biggest proponents of this authoritarianism, disguised as a “Membership Covenant”. There are others. They all subscribe to iron-fisted control over other Christians and harshly punish any dissent with excommunication and shunnings. Their practices are hateful and un-Christian.

      Dever says that you can’t have members leave through the “back exits” and have “members on the rolls” who don’t go to church. Has he ever heard of the phone? Could you pick it up, call them, and ask, “Do you consider yourself to be a member or not? Would you like to be on the roll or not?” There are simple, honest, straight-forward, loving, decent ways to solve problems. Dever blames people exiting through the “back exits” on the Christians leaving. OK, reality check time: Why are you and your leaders so disagreeable and untrustworthy that people feel the need to leave through the “back exits”?

      Pastor Wade Burleson’s excellent article about the biggest threat to the church today from authoritarianism: http://www.wadeburleson.org/2012/01/our-problem-is-authoritarianism-and-not.html

  17. Yes! I agree with everything you wrote and I’m glad more and more people are speaking out! Church covenants and church discipline destroyed my relationship with my father and overall was humiliating for my brothers and I! The true story is that my mother abandoned the marriage and gave up on my father and kicked him out of the home. After a year of pursuing her he decided he wanted to get a divorce to have a chance at being loved and married again. The church brought him on church discipline and demonized him. They created this false narrative that my mother was a helpless victim and my father a terrible man who should be shunned… No forgiveness for him! I grew up not knowing the whole story for the church and my mom had to protect this false narrative and so for the majority of my life I had a very strained relationship with him. It wasn’t until recently, years after everything happened, that the truth began to emerge. My mom played up the whole I’m a victim and the church went along with it. If you’re going to cast someone out and shun them then it’s your responsibility to get the whole story! Even though the truth has come out my old church will never acknowledge their mistakes and how it severely effected me and my two brothers. I’ll never sign a covenant!

  18. fiveonly says:

    I know you wrote this a few months back but it’s a terrific analysis of the problem. This is not just a trend, it’s become epidemic in evangelical churches.

    • Tim says:

      I am familiar with some of the issues at various churches around the country, as well as one church overseas that has a strict membership covenant/authority set-up.

      [Sorry about editing your comment but I have to avoid references on the blog to matters that are presently, about to be, or have recently been legal cases or investigations.]

  19. Hi Tim. I found this accidentally by looking for examples of church covenants for our church. I completely agree that rotten covenants or graceless relationships within the church cause a lot of pain, but I think you have completely missed a key point of the Bible. I’d encourage you to be on the lookout for how many times the promises and protection of God attaches to a people (plural) rather than an individual. Almost all the epistles were written to churches, the whole of Israel was what God considered His adulterous bride and I could go on. The corporate unity of local assemblies was the subject of multiple biblical prayers.

    I’m not saying that there are no individual promises or that all church covenants are great. You are certainly right in highlighting the abuses you have seen. I just don’t think you have spelled out the whole picture of “we being many are one body in Christ” and I hope you will reconsider. In my experience, American individualism has done more to hurt Christians than any church covenant ever did.

    • Tim says:

      I know what you’re talking about, but our relationship with each other in the one body is because of our covenant with God. The covenant you and I are in is the covenant we have with God, not each other.

  20. jparks says:

    The thing is signing your rights to the church gives them legal rights. I learned the hard way. My exwife wanted to move on. She convinced the church leaders I was gay. They told her to take all of our money out of the bank. She had a bunch of them come over, pack up my stuff and put it in the street. When I got home that day, they barred me from my own house. I said I would call the police – but they had already called them and said they expected me to be violent. The police came by a few minutes later and told me to leave of be arrested. I sued her. The judge ruled in her favor because I had “willingly” signed my rights to the church. Lesson learned.

  21. CE says:

    I signed a membership covenant before I was Baptized in my Fundamental Baptist Church. I was 13. Thought I was singing up for to be Baptized. At that age, had no clue what the covenant was other than I could now partake of “The Lord’s Table.” Each month before “The Lord’s Table” the pastor would read a passage from Corinthians then we’d all turn to the inside back page of the Church’s hymn books are responsively read aloud things in the covenant. The only point I can remember was that we were NEVER to drink alcohol or hang out with those who did. Which was quite confusing because my father figure was a falling down & mean drunk –

    Years later, I stopped going to the church. Hadn’t attended in 4 or 5 years but they didn’t bother me until I started telling about abuse in that church & its church affiliated day school.

    Suddenly, I got a nasty phone call from the pastor. He followed up with a copy of the church covenant with the portion in yellow highlighter that members are not to disparage the pastor or any “spiritual leader” who worked for the church.

    The pastor tried to threaten me that I had signed the covenant – even sent a copy of my 13 yo signature. He threatened that I was obligated to God & also the church would bring a civil suit.

    Here’s my return letter:

    Dear Pastor _____,

    Thank you for your letter.

    1) There’s a God but His last name is not ____.

    2) You can attempt to sue me by using of a document signed by a thirteen year old who had no understanding of what she signing. Anyone in this country can sue for anything. I think you’ll lose.

    3) I will countersue.

    Ain’t America great?

    Good luck,

    CE

    Never heard from the pastor again. 😇

    • Tim says:

      You put him right where he was trying to put you: in a position to defend his actions. He couldn’t and I bet that’s why you never heard from him again.

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  27. Gwen Jorgensen says:

    I am so thankful for this post. I have been alarmed at the growth of these church covenants, that my husband and I escaped 30 years ago. I thought then, that this was on it’s way out, and have been astounded to see this concept, and also a more anti- woman leadership take root in so many of these mega or evangelical churches. The long thread of conversation to this post, gives me hope that people will see an importance of a covenant and relationship with Jesus Christ, not a binding, controlling, authoritarian, mind stealing church government making your personal decisions. It destroys true growth and disciplieship. I pray that understanding, healing, and growth will result from these types of posts. I have been amazed both at how long it’s taken me to to trust a local church again, and also at the goodness of the Lord to show me the faithfulness and hands and feet of Christ by the people he sends my way.

    To be fair, I think it is often started out of a sincere and good intentions, but can quickly go bad as the idea of power, instead of relationship with Christ becomes more appealing. Many of your commenters alluded to that.

    Thank you for posting this. Freedom in Christ’s rule.

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  29. Lisa says:

    I find church covenants to be extremely disturbing. I do not enter into a covenant relationship with a pastor, pastoral team, or a board of elders, only God. Every church and denomination that embraces this model has an underlying current of control. The purpose of meeting together is for mutual encouragement to be faithful to God. Not to control anyone.

    The Village Church, an SBC church that is part of the infamous Acts 29 group, was the perfect example of the problem with church covenants with the whole Jordan Root and Matt Chandler scandal. They believe they have the authority to control whether their covenant members seek a divorce or annulment. While it’s wonderful when members trust their pastors to give good counsel regarding such important decisions, the church does not have the authority to control decisions of the members. It was a horrific scandal and I hope people were awakened to the dangers of this mindset.

    • Tim says:

      “The purpose of meeting together is for mutual encouragement to be faithful to God. Not to control anyone.”

      That’s one of the best summaries on it I’ve read, Lisa. I think some church leaders would say, “But without the written agreement how are we supposed to keep people accountable?” My answer is that accountability is done the same way as without a written covenant: through the encouragement and counsel you mention in your comment.

  30. Marie says:

    Reblogged this on Marie_O'Toole.com and commented:
    A modern distinction of the Neo-Cal movement, signed “membership covenants” have no basis in Scripture and are one of the hallmarks of a cult. One of the issues I write about in my upcoming book about spiritual abuse, “Broken Toys”, I was happily surprised to see my friend Tim Fall has already done so.

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